A pHish Tale


This case highlights potential dilemmas encountered by postdoctoral fellows in a research setting. Should a scientist release incomplete data to an environmental group so they may work to prevent further environmental damage, or hope for the best during the five-year EPA funded project that will provide conclusive data? It also explores scientists social responsibilities and public perception of scientific data.


Part 1

Part 2

Part 1

Tom is a postdoc who is participating in a government-funded project to study the pH levels in a series of lakes scattered throughout an area of 100 square miles. The study was conducted because the numbers of fish in some of the lakes had been dropping, and the EPA wanted to know what was causing the fish to die. Data from Tom's study indicate that a number of lakes have alarmingly low pH levels, although some have normal pH levels. High acidity (low pH) is known to be deadly to many fish species.

Because of the large area affected, Tom believes that the contamination must be traveling through the air. He is almost certain that the low pH levels are due to acid rain caused by emissions from power plants in the surrounding region. However, the data from his study are not sufficient to show that the power plant emissions are causing the lakes' acidity. Another five-year project is planned to determine the causes of the acidity.

Unfortunately, some fish species that are sensitive to pH levels have died off in the lakes. If pH levels continue to fall, most fish will disappear, harming not only the ecosystem, but the local economies of some lakeside villages, where fishermen rely on the fish from the lakes for their livelihood. Tom is concerned that if something is not done about the pollution source immediately, the lakes may suffer permanent damage.

One of Tom's long-time friends is a member of a local environmental group that wants the power plants to move. His friend suggests Tom meet with Susan, the leader of the group, but Tom is not sure whether it is appropriate to become involved in local politics, especially since data to determine the actual cause of the pollution have not yet been collected.

Tom and Richard, a senior research scientist on the study, are publishing their findings in a national journal; it is unlikely that the locals will see this publication. They have discussed the next phase of the research, and Tom knows that Richard also believes that the power plants are the most likely cause of the contamination. Tom decided to discuss his concerns about the fish with Richard and ask his advice on whether he should help the environmental group by speaking out against the power plants.

When Tom talked to Richard, Richard expressed concern about any involvement with the environmental groups. "Tom," he said, "I've seen how many of those groups operate. They have no use for science unless it fits into their agenda. Many of the so-called leaders of those groups just want to get their name in the newspaper."

"But Richard, I know some of these people, and they're not like that," Tom replied.

"I don't know, Tom. We have some responsibility as scientists to be objective and stay neutral in such a debate. If we start to take sides, our work will be questioned, and we risk not being taken seriously. I've known a few scientists who have become activists, and if they hadn't already established a strong reputation in their field, their reputations among scientists were often tainted by their perceived subjectivity. Sometimes, their 'cause' was even harmed and their activism backfired because their work was painted as biased. What happens if you speak out against the power plants and we find out that there is another cause for the acidity?"

Tom replied, "I see what you mean. I don't want to be seen as biased. Still, I feel I have some responsibility to try to save the fish for the sake of the people that rely on them and for the ecosystems that support them. Do you really think that there might be another cause for the acidity?"

"No," said Richard. "I think it's pretty unlikely. Still, your reputation may be damaged whether you're wrong or not."

Tom thanked Richard for his advice, but he still felt that he had some responsibility to the fish and the fishermen.

Discussion Questions

1. What are Tom's options? What should he do?

2. Does he have an ethical responsibility to become active in the debate and try to help save the lakes?

3. Does he have a responsibility to the scientific community to maintain his objectivity and avoid the risk of harming the public's attitude toward scientific research?

Part 2

Tom has decided that his moral responsibility to help save the lakes is more important, and he gets in touch with Susan. Susan tells Tom that the public doesn't understand the subtleties of scientific research. She says that if they are going to be able to make a difference, Tom will have to present the preliminary study results in the broadest terms and brush over the uncertainties. Susan wants to say that they have a scientific expert familiar with the lakes who is convinced that the power plants are causing the pollution and that something must be done soon or the lakes will suffer permanent damage. Tom is uncomfortable with such strong language, but Susan won't back down.

Discussion Questions

4. What should Tom do?

5. In light of the uncertainty involved in the research to date, should Tom now back away from being involved in the environmental group?

6. Should Tom try to find a way to communicate the uncertainties involved in determining the causes of the low pH levels to the public?



Brian Schrag, ed., Research Ethics: Cases and Commentaries, Volume 5, Bloomington, Indiana: Association for Practical and Professional Ethics, 2001.

Anonymous. . A pHish Tale. Online Ethics Center. DOI:. https://onlineethics.org/cases/graduate-research-ethics-cases-and-commentaries-volume-5-2001/phish-tale.

The interesting character in this case study is Richard, identified as a "senior research scientist." In response to Tom's concerns, Richard describes what he sees as the role of scientists:

We have some responsibility as scientists to be objective and stay neutral in such a debate.

He speaks as if being objective and staying neutral are all the same. It is not good, according to Richard, for scientists to fail to be objective or to take sides in debates concerning the use of their scientific information.

I want to ask first if it is necessary for a scientist to be objective in order to be a good scientist. That is one issue. The second issue is whether it is necessary for a scientist to stay neutral.

At the risk of being called a positivist, I believe that scientists discover the truth by the use of their senses. Tom and Richard measured the pH in the lakes, counted the fish species and performed other tests in their aquatic biology and chemistry laboratory. They used their senses of sight, smell, touch and perhaps even hearing to draw conclusions about the health of the lakes. Most of these data would be considered "objective." If Tom uses a pH meter to measure the pH of the water a certain distance below the surface during a certain time of day and at a given temperature, the result is an indisputable number (provided there have been no interferences and the meter was properly calibrated). Given this information, all scientists would agree that the data are objective and valid.

Suppose Tom and Richard find that the lake directly downwind from the power plant has by far the lowest pH value, and the lakes that are not affected by the plume from the power plant have neutral values, normal for lakes in that region. Is it then "objective" to jump to the conclusion that the power plant is responsible for causing the low pH in the lake?

Good scientists will not make that statement. Proving causality is notoriously difficult, and Tom should refrain from suggesting conclusions where causality is uncertain.

A similar problem with drawing causative conclusions based on environmental data exists in the global warming controversy. We know, for example, that the carbon dioxide concentration in our atmosphere is increasing, and we also know that the temperature of the earth is increasing. We understand how the increased CO2 in the atmosphere could cause global warming, and indeed most mathematical models suggest that CO2 and other greenhouse gases such as methane indeed are the culprits, but there is no proof of that. A good scientist would say that there is evidence that both curves are increasing, and that there are some very sophisticated mathematical models that suggest that there is a causal relationship, but there is no proof up to this point. The role of scientists is to provide the data and to make suggestions. It is not the role of scientists, as scientists, to jump to conclusions where there may be alternative explanations for a phenomenon. If that is what Richard means by "neutral" in the case study, then he is right. In the absence of proof, the scientist is morally committed to simply present the data and suggest possible alternative explanations.

But there are other ways to stay "neutral," and that is what Tom is coping with. He recognizes that time is running out for the various species in these lakes, and that their loss would not only be detrimental to the ecosystem, but would result in an economic catastrophe for many of the people who depend on the fish. He also knows, I am sure, that once the pH in a lake has dropped to levels that preclude the procreation of fish, the water will stay at this pH for a very long time. There are no known techniques for economically revitalizing a lake destroyed by acidity.

Tom is now weighing the question of neutrality the same way that atmospheric scientists weigh the problem of global warming. We do not know for sure what is causing warmer temperatures, but the results of global warming are so catastrophic that it makes a lot of sense to do all we can to prevent further temperature increases now instead of waiting until it is too late. Atmospheric chemists talk of a "forcing function," a notion that we can do something to the atmosphere at the present time and not find out for many years what effect it might have on the long-term global temperature. Similarly, Tom recognizes that the "forcing function" on the lakes is most likely the power plant emissions, and that if these emissions continue, the lakes will die.

Second, as a private citizen, Tom can advise the group and even represent them in a public hearing. Tom cannot do that in his role as a university researcher or a participant in a government-sponsored study, but his knowledge can be put to good use in his role as citizen. If he strongly suspects that the power plant is causing the pH to be depressed, then he has a moral obligation to say so. In contrast to his role as citizen/adviser, in his published scientific papers he has an obligation to refrain from suggesting that the problem is caused by the power plant unless he lists this possibility as one of several.

This dual role as scientist and citizen is not hard to understand because all of us participate in such mental bifurcation. I spend time with my buddies at a ball game and we drink beer and tell risqué jokes. At the ballgame, I am in my role as fan and friend. But the next day, in my role as professor, I cannot drink beer or tell such jokes. I continue to be the same person, but my roles change, as does appropriate behavior for those roles. In Tom's case, the appropriate role of the scientist is to question everything and to publish irrefutable data. As a citizen, his role ought to be to advise the people who could make a difference and perhaps save the lakes.

Author: P. Aarne Vesilind, Bucknell University.

The main purpose of this case is to discuss some of the dilemmas that many engineers and scientists may face when dealing with important scientific issues that directly affect the public interest. In this case, a large number of lakes in a region have been found to contain high acidity (low pH). Tom and Richard both believe that the pH changes are caused by pollution that originated at the regional power plants and traveled through the air to be deposited on the lakes. Their main reason for believing this explanation is that when such a large area is affected, the mechanism for the pollution is most likely air transport. However, no real scientific evidence has been gathered to link the pH changes to the electric plants, and Tom and Richard are launching a five-year study explicitly to determine the cause of the pollution.

In the case of some scientific or engineering studies, there would be no dilemma; Tom and Richard could perform the study and determine the cause of the pollution, and others could decide how best to deal with the problem when they were finished. But in this case, severe and irreversible damage may be done to the lakes, the fish and the communities that rely on the fish before their study has been completed.

Tom feels that he has a responsibility to try and keep the lakes from being destroyed, and he would like to take an active role in removing the cause of the problem. He has close ties to the local environmental community, and he wants to help them keep the lakes safe from harm.

Richard, the older and more experienced scientist, does not want to get involved with the environmental groups. He believes that as scientists, they should not take sides. The position of scientists and engineers in American society is somewhat precarious. They have a reputation for being objective, relying on facts and not being influenced by any particular political agenda. However, as more and more scientists have begun to take an active position in some issues, the public's attitude toward science has been changing. Richard is also concerned about his and Tom's standing in the scientific community if they make such a bold claim and discover that they are wrong after further research.

Part 1

The dilemma rests with Tom. He has a few choices. He could agree with Richard and not take any active position on the pollution, or he could get involved with the environmental activists right away. Another option would be to wait until some preliminary results came from the study and hope that no further damage was done to the lakes by that time. Then he could use the research results to confirm or repudiate his theory and be more confident in his action (and somewhat more objective). Another option would be to mention the problem to his environmental friends but not take an active role himself.

His decision is a difficult one, and I believe that his choice must be rooted in the details of the situation. Tom must weigh the possible effects of continuing unabated pollution on the fish and lakeside communities against the short- and long-term effects of his action on his own career and on his discipline. He should also consider the effect that modifying or closing the power plants would have on the utilities and those who work for them. However, he does not want to turn his back on his friends. If he believes that the lakes will soon be irreparably damaged, he should act now; otherwise, he should probably wait until further information is gathered.

Part 2

Tom has weighed the information and has decided that the potential immediate harm to the environment and the communities that rely on it is more important than other concerns. He has allied himself with his friends in the local environmental group, but his friends want him to make statements that condemn the utilities and are much stronger than the evidence and his beliefs support. They claim that such statements are needed because the public does not understand the intricacies of scientific research and would not be motivated to act otherwise.

Here, Tom's dilemma is even more difficult. Most of the nonscientific public, including many individuals holding political office, do not have a good understanding of how science is done and the large uncertainties that it often involves. Thus, his environmentalist friends have a significant point when they say that they must make their message simple in order to be understood and to galvanize support into action.

However, in many scientific circles, and probably in Tom's mind, brushing over the uncertainties to that extent is a lot like lying. Personal and scientific integrity would make it difficult to take such strong a stance on this issue. But, if you step back from it, that's really the only thing that has changed. Tom still believes that the lakes face imminent danger if nothing is done. Is keeping his personal integrity intact worth the destruction of the lakes?

Of course, the salvation of the lakes does not entirely rest with Tom. Whether he is involved or not may not make any difference, although the support of a scientist closely involved with the study will probably strengthen the case of the environmental group. Would making the statements really be tantamount to lying? Should he adamantly refuse to make the statements but still be involved with the groups' actions?

Another option would be to set up some community discussions where he could explain the details of the lakes' increased acidity without saying definitively that the pollution is coming from the power plants. Would this option satisfy his need to stop the pollution without harming his integrity? If such scientific discussions were commonplace in the community, would that make Tom's job and decision easier?

Regardless of Tom's decision, it must be a very personal one, informed by the facts and the likely effects of his actions. It is hoped that a discussion of this case will help better prepare scientists and engineers to face this type of decision. Perhaps it will even encourage them to take steps to educate the public on scientific matters before a problem like this one occurs.